Perhaps you know this part of southern Wisconsin because of its most popular tourist attraction. But look beyond Geneva Lake and you’ll find a people rooted to generations-old farms, more than 40 lakes and the unmistakable charm of small-town America.
Lisa Dawsey Smith has lived in a 100-year-old house in Whitewater, Wis., for the past six years, and she still has an “outsider” perspective on what makes this slice of Wisconsin a unique place.
“Being from the East Coast, I know Walworth County is very rural. It’s just the way it is,” says Smith, board chair of the Downtown Whitewater organization, co-manager of the Whitewater City Market and a city council member. “It’s something to be celebrated. I think the fact that we have so much open space is fantastic.”
It’s easy to take that rural aspect for granted, mostly because Walworth County is best-known for one attraction: Lake Geneva.
The city has been a vacation destination for more than a century. Its blocks of shopping and dining, plus miles of lakeshore, provide many recreational activities – and Walworth County is thankful for that.
But there is plenty more waiting to be discovered here, because Lake Geneva is only a gateway to fun.
“Lake Geneva is just one piece of the puzzle here,” says Caroline Carbonara, a Walworth County native and the integrated marketing manager of Walworth County Visitors Bureau. “It’s what most people of the northern suburbs think of: ‘I’m going to Wisconsin,’ and they think of Lake Geneva, and they think of the lake and dining. But you can find so many other hidden gems in every corner, every crevice of this county.”
Agriculture Lives On
There are countless multi-generational farms in Walworth County, and if they’re not practicing the original family business, they’ve reinvented themselves – with agriculture still in mind.
Laura Duesterbeck Johnson and her husband, Ben, are part of the sixth generation to maintain their family’s former pig farm, established near Elkhorn more than 150 years ago. Their six children are the seventh generation.
“I knew that I wanted to live out on the farm,” Laura says. “My dad was always in love with this farm. Because of that, I loved our farm. I loved my grandparents, I loved being raised with the wind blowing and country air. I thought it was a great way to grow up and live.”
When pig farming died out in the 1980s and only field crops remained, Johnson knew she and Ben, a dentist by trade, had to reimagine how the farm would survive.
They turned to Ben’s omnipresent passion for homebrewing and decided to create a microbrewery on site, in a replica of the family’s original barn.
In 2019, Duesterbeck’s Brewing Co. opened as an agribusiness. Today, it offers 20 beers on tap, including IPAs, oatmeal stout, brown ale, a sour beer and even a hard seltzer made at the farm.
“We try to include something for everyone, including our wine drinkers, which is why we included the hard seltzer,” says Johnson.
They try to include local farmers, as well.
“We don’t grow our own hops – it’s too labor intensive – but we use locally sourced honey,” Johnson says. “Our strawberries are from the Jacobsons, who own Apple Barn Orchard and Winery up the street from us.”
County officials have taken notice of families who are preserving their heritage while looking to the future. That’s how the Walworth County Beer and Wine Trail came to be.
Introduced in late May, the trail encourages visitors to meander through Walworth County as they visit 14 breweries and wineries. A free mobile passport unlocks deals at each location.
“We knew that the Kentucky Bourbon Trail had been so popular, so we thought this would be a really cool feature,” Carbonara says. “It’s celebrating local flavor, local businesses. We have so many unique breweries and wineries.”
The trail is just one way you’ll find people in Walworth County celebrating their agricultural heritage.
“The farmers markets are a way to generate community engagement and to support our community at a grassroots level,” says Kellie Carper, executive director of the Whitewater Chamber of Commerce. “Before Lake Geneva became so popular, the county had always been very rural and agricultural.”
“The culture of an agriculture community is still something that carries into now,” agrees Lisa Dawsey Smith. “A lot of people think about farm-to-table movements as a return to our roots. Knowing where your food came from and how it was raised was really important 100 years ago, and it is today, too.”
In fact, there’s a growing sustainable food network in the area. While locals could buy their lettuce from the grocery store – it was grown in Brazil – they could easily buy it from a farmer in Whitewater.
“Whitewater has one farmers market on Saturday, one on Tuesday,” says Smith. “You can get meat and cheese; you can get one-stop shopping without having to go to the grocery store.”
Farmers markets are so integral that you’ll find a market somewhere in the county nearly every day of the week.
“Most of the communities try their best so we’re not all at the same day or at the same time, so all of the farmers and entrepreneurs really have a chance to travel the county,” Carper says.
Boating, Hiking and Biking
If Walworth County is all in for agriculture, it’s equally enthusiastic about lake life. There are more than 40 lakes in the county, with plenty of ponds and smaller bodies scattered throughout its 577 square miles.
Geneva Lake takes the prize as the largest and best-known. The lake is 7 miles long and draws large numbers of boaters and water sports enthusiasts, with those same lake lovers frequenting dining establishments around the shoreline.
There’s much to enjoy on the water, including boat tours through the Geneva Lake Cruise Line, but plenty of people stay on land and catch the action through the Historic Shore Path.
This public, 26-mile trail hugs the shoreline and showcases historic estates and gardens while offering breathtaking views. There are several public access points that allow walkers to commit to shorter hikes, if desired.
Local resident Bob Bougadis has put together an audio guide so you can learn more about Geneva Lake’s history and the architecture surrounding it.
The area’s second-largest lake is Delavan Lake, and it’s well known for quality fishing. It also has Lake Lawn Resort, which occupies 2 miles of shoreline.
Whitewater Lake, Powers Lake, Lake Como and Lake Beulah are other large, popular lakes that attract residents and visitors alike.
“Whether you’re on a tiny little fishing boat trying to catch walleye or you’re wakeboarding and doing barefoot waterskiing – that’s a really big thing here – it’s all about getting on the water and enjoying our beautiful lakes,” says Carbonara.
Away from the water, hiking and biking trails attract people of all ages.
Whitewater is an official Ice Age Trail Community, meaning the city is dedicated to increasing awareness of the 1,200-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail, a hiking and backpacking route carved out when glaciers ran through Wisconsin.
“Whitewater is probably the most walkable city in the county because we have so many walking trails and biking trails,” says Carper. “A lot of folks come here to walk a trail for a few hours, and then they’ll swing by the community.”
White River County Park is the largest park in Walworth County, and it includes a portion of the 19-mile, limestone-surfaced White River State Trail. What was once a railroad line is now popular with hikers and bikers, who especially enjoy the 12 miles that stretch from Elkhorn to Burlington (a city split between Walworth and Racine counties).
As a bonus, a 5-mile extension was completed last fall to connect Lake Geneva with the White River State Trail.
The Geneva Lake Conservancy, headquartered in Fontana-on-Geneva Lake, oversees a handful of parks in the county, including Bromley Woods in Whitewater, says Maddie Olivieri, community outreach manager for the conservancy.
The main trail of the 40-acre preserve lies beside a 10-acre kettle pond that supports a wide variety of wildlife.
“We have our bird festival every other year at Bromley,” says Olivieri. “It’s so densely forested, it’s home to a lot of migratory birds. It supports a lot of wildlife. That’s probably one of my favorites – it’s really beautiful.”
The conservancy recently discovered what is assumed to be the oldest oak tree in Walworth County, says Olivieri. It’s set back in Kettle Moraine State Forest (which lies partially in Walworth County) and is accessible through Bromley Woods.
Hansen Preserve in Elkhorn has one of the area’s more rugged hikes. A boardwalk extends through wetlands that evoke a very “backwoods” feel, Olivieri says.
The Helen Rohner Children’s Fishing Park in Williams Bay has a half-mile boardwalk that leads up to the Kishwaukétoe Nature Conservancy – the perfect hike for little legs.
There’s also a natural playground and a small creek that meanders along the side of the park, coupled with a worm digging bin and fishing poles.
“In the summer, we offer free fishing lessons,” says Olivieri. “There’s story time there every week, and nature classes, too. We get very busy at the fishing park.”
In general, visitors to Walworth County find a laid-back atmosphere where people enjoy relaxing and reconnecting with the land. Still, each community has its own distinct flavors.
As the county seat and home to the 98-acre Walworth County Fairgrounds, Elkhorn hosts most of the “big” events, including the Walworth County Fair – Wisconsin’s largest fair, now celebrating its 172nd season. The fairgrounds’ newest escapade, DAS Fest USA, celebrates German heritage.
“DAS Fest is predicting 10,000 visitors a day, which is going to be insane,” says Carbonara. “The fair brings in a similar attendance.”
There’s also the Elkhorn Ribfest, touted as the largest barbecue festival in Wisconsin. The four-day event includes food, live music and fun times in mid-July.
At the end of July, Elkhorn Corn and Brat days draws crowds to downtown Elkhorn’s Veterans Park, where the Saturday morning farmers market meets.
“Delavan is exactly what you think of small-town Main Street in the U.S.,” says Carbonara. “There’s a really cool brick road on Main Street, unique little boutiques, a wonderful bakery. It’s a very diverse city with a Hispanic epicenter – the best tacos are in downtown Delavan.”
In fact, this city is very much a dining destination, says Carolynn Reyenga, administrative assistant for the Delavan Lake Area Chamber of Commerce.
“We have the Mexican restaurants – Arandas Mexican Grill is really good and Hernandez El Sarape has been there forever,” Reyenga says. “We have a couple of supper clubs. The Village Supper Club, on Delavan Lake, is a traditional supper club with a Friday fish fry, which is still a big thing in Wisconsin. They still have the little relish bar like they used to years ago. We have Patti’s Deli, a local favorite … Elizabeth’s Café is always busy for breakfast … and Jonathan’s on Brick Street.”
The city also is artistic, Carbonara says. Wall advertisement murals, painted by a group of artists known as the Walldogs, cover the downtown area, depicting scenes like the city’s former art colony and its circus heritage (it was once a winter home to several circuses).
Brick Street Day is a cultural and artistic festival in mid-June that pays homage to the artistic roots of the city.
The Phoenix Park Bandshell hosts cultural activities like car shows and a sock hop with dancing lessons, says Reyenga. Thursday evenings feature the Praise in the Park concert series, performed by different Christian organizations. Weekends are full of live musical acts.
Though a college town at its core, this city’s University of Wisconsin campus is just one popular attraction in Walworth County’s largest city.
Both the Whitewater City Market (on Tuesday evenings) and the Whitewater Farmers Market (on Saturday mornings) take place near the train depot downtown.
There also are two breweries: Second Salem Brewing Co. and 841 Brewhouse.
“There is a lot of really good dining,” adds Kellie Carper. “The majority of folks who come to Whitewater come here to eat. People drive from out of town just to eat. The Black Sheep has gotten national press coverage, and we’re on the Walworth County Beer and Wine Trail.”
In September 2020, Whitewater’s parks and recreation department opened the Cravath Lakefront Amphitheater, which now houses a summer concert series and family fun nights.
Bearing an older, more historic feel, this village’s square is full of boutiques. It’s comparable to Lake Geneva, but on a smaller scale.
Also on the square is the East Troy Brewery, which opened in 2018.
“East Troy Brewery has really modernized the area and re-energized things,” Carbonara says.
Still, classics remain. J. Lauber’s Ice Cream Parlor is an old-fashioned 1920s soda fountain and corner store.
“Where else do you get to get old-fashioned sodas?” says Laura Duesterbeck Johnson. “And it’s right in an old train depot.”
Across the tracks is the East Troy Railroad Museum, which runs the East Troy Electric Railroad. Passengers ride the rails to Mukwonago and back for dinner excursions, family picnics and Sunday brunches.
Located on the west end of Geneva Lake, this community is home to The Abbey Resort, a full-service resort with marina, spa and lakeside dining.
The village also is home to the Lake Geneva Yacht Club, one of the oldest Inland Lake Yachting Association clubs still in service.
The village is also a destination for golf enthusiasts. Though Fontana (as it’s called locally) has just 1,600 permanent residents, it also bears three golf courses: Abbey Springs Golf Course, Country Club Estates Golf Course and Big Foot Country Club.
This small village in Walworth County’s far southwest corner is best known for Model A Days, which showcases more than 100 Model A cars on the first Sunday in June.
But bicyclists know this town for its portion of the Fontana-Sharon Cycling Loop.
The Historic Downtown Sharon organization and the Pacific-Atlantic Cycling Tour created six local bike routes ranging from 15 to 39 miles.
“They take you past lakes, past farms, through forests – you run the gamut on those trails,” Carbonara says.
If you attend the Roun’da Manure Bicycle Tour the third Saturday in August, you can choose from four routes and redeem coupons at ice cream shops along the way.
All the routes end back in Sharon, where a pig roast is hosted, live music is played and popular Myrt’s Ice Cream Shoppe is packed, serving well-deserved cyclists one of their 30 flavors of Cedar Crest Ice Cream.
Situated on the northwest end of Geneva Lake, Williams Bay is known as the home of George Williams College of Aurora University, which in turn is known for hosting its Music by the Lake summer concert series.
Williams Bay also is home to Yerkes Observatory, an astronomical observatory used for more than 100 years. It was founded in 1892 by astronomer George Ellery Hale and financed by businessman Charles T. Yerkes.
“Tons of famous scientists – like Carl Sagan and Albert Einstein – visited,” says Carbonara.
Yerkes housed the world’s largest refracting-type telescope ever successfully used for astronomy. Closed in 2018, it’s expected to re-open for tours later this year.
Undoubtedly the most well-known city in Walworth County, Lake Geneva has a flavor all its own.
It often attracts Chicago and Milwaukee residents who want respite from city life and the comforts of the open lake air without losing favorite pastimes of golfing, shopping and dining.
Lake Geneva caters to that crowd with two of Wisconsin’s top golf resorts, Geneva National and Grand Geneva; blocks of boutiques and dining establishments; and family-friendly activities mixed in.
A top summer attraction includes the Venetian Festival – a five-day, family-friendly event in August that features a craft fair, carnival, water ski show and local food vendors, with a traditional Venetian-style lighted boat parade and huge fireworks displays.